Are we in the most widespread protest wave in US history?

As Black Lives Matter protests multiply across the country in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, people are asking how to place the massive public reaction into historical context. Subjectively, the current protests can feel like another element in a long series of protests memorializing Black deaths at the hands of the state and private racist acts—“A decade of watching Black people die”—and simultaneously like “a watershed moment” that “changes everything,” as new and unexpected parts of US and world society are joining in the resistance to racism and police violence. It’s in that context that the first quantitative counts of the George Floyd protests are circulating now.

Writing in the Washington Post, Lara Putnam, Erica Chenoweth, and Jeremy Pressman call the current protest wave “the broadest in U.S. history” and note that, “People have held protests in all 50 states and D.C., including in hundreds of smaller, lesser-known towns and cities that have not been in the spotlight during previous nationwide protests.” Of course, “broad” is the a measure here because, so far, largest is off the table: many protest waves have involved larger overall numbers of participants and certainly there have been many larger single events than the impressive rallies this week, which have reached the tens of thousands in Minneapolis, Houston, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington. And of course, no prior protest wave has had to overcome the challenge of pandemic-induced social distancing.

So the measure has become less about the sheer number of people involved, and more about the number and diversity of the locations we are showing up to protest. So how do we measure that and how can we be sure? Unfortunately, there is no single long-term data set on protest participation, despite the recent hard work of the Crowd Counting Consortium (CCC)—founded by Chenoweth and Pressman—since 2017. Before that time, we have to rely on historical and personal memory, which can often mean we forget the more distant past and discard events that don’t fit well into longer narratives.

The data from the CCC show events in 538 distinct US municipalities so far (and more are on the way). (To calculate this number, I ran a uniqueness filter on city and state from the May and June spreadsheets for George Floyd events.) A tracker from USA Today names 700 localities in the United States. These are very high numbers, but of course they reflect both the increased willingness and ability to rapidly organize protests and improved means for researchers to find them. Zeynep Tufekci makes a compelling call in her book Twitter and Tear Gas to avoid purely numerical comparisons across different decades: “seemingly similar outcomes

“seemingly similar outcomes and benchmarks—for example, a protest march attended by a hundred thousand people—do not necessarily signal the same underlying capacity to those in power when they are organized with the aid of digital technology as they do when they are organized without such supporting tools.

Tufekci, Zeynep. Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017, p. 192.

Instead of measuring outcomes, Tufekci urges us to look at the “onerous labor and deep organizational and logistical capacity to make things happen,” which had to be built before marches could exist in the 1960s, but which now tends to be constructed on site after a movement has gone viral and found one another in the streets. She proposes we should look at narrative capacity—“the ability of the movement to frame its story on its own terms, to spread its world view”; disruptive capacity to “interrupt the regular operations of a system of authority”; and electoral or institutional capacity “to keep politicians from being elected, reelected, or nominated unless they adopt and pursue” desired policies.

It may be too early to tell whether participation in 2020 is truly more widespread than in past events, or to measure the depth of commitment and sophistication of the current movement, but what I want to do here is lay out some other protest waves that we should have in mind when looking for comparisons:

King Assassination/Holy Week riots, 1968: In important ways, the nationwide protests, uprisings, property destruction, and violence which followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr on April 4, 1968, are the closest historical parallel to the current mobilization. Peter Levy’s The Great Uprising cites government files to record that:

Between April 4th … and Easter Sunday April 14, 1968, looting, arson, or sniper fire occurred in 196 cities in thirty-six states plus the District of Columbia. Fifty-four cities suffered at least $100,000 in property damage, with the nation’s capital and Baltimore topping the list at approximately $15 million and $12 million ($81 million in 2015 dollars), respectively. Thousands of small shopkeepers saw their life’s savings go up in smoke. Combined forty-three men and women were killed, approximately 3,500 were injured, and 27,000 were arrested. Not until over 58,000 National Guardsmen and regular Army troops joined local and state police forces did the uprisings cease. Put somewhat differently, during Holy Week 1968, the United States experienced its greatest wave of social unrest since the Civil War.

Levy, Peter B. The Great Uprising. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018, p. 154.

Levy’s work puts the April 1968 wave at the apex of a decade-long series of African-American revolts, itself only side of the post-1954 Black Freedom Movement that fundamentally changed Blacks and the United States.

Table from Peter Levy, The Great Uprising, p. 9.

The King assassination riots have reasonably been overshadowed by the assassination of the apostle of African American nonviolent protest and less reasonably by the Columbia University and University of Chicago protest movements that happened simultaneously. I am not aware of a data source on the number of non-riotous protests that happened simultaneously, but they too surely contributed to the rapid passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 on April 10–11, 1968.

Occupy, 2011: The September 17 Occupy Wall Street protests against economic inequality and elite-dominated government rapidly mushroomed into hundreds of parallel events across the United States and the world. Even from the Manhattan epicenter, it was hard to keep track of this profusion, but a directory compiled for the 15 October 2011 global protests listed 951 events in 82 countries. The Guardian compiled an independent spreadsheet listing 746 events; 419 of those were in the United States, but a quick sort brought that down to 294 distinct municipal locations.

Protests against the Iraq War, 2003: Just as in 2011 and 2020, protests in the United States were just part of a global protest movement against George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. The BBC estimated that six to ten million protested worldwide on the weekend of February 15–16. Inside the United States, protests were recorded in 225 localities. This included a mammoth protest in Rome estimate at up to 3 million people and vast crowd of hundreds of thousand in New York City, where protesters were denied a permit to march and police arrested hundreds of demonstrators. Smaller, but significant numbers protested in March 15 to 23 protests against the start of the war, including mass direct action protests and property destruction from in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia.

May 1970: At the end of April 1970, the Nixon administration announced its invasion of the neutral country of Cambodia, a major expansion of the already reviled Vietnam War. This escalation coincided with a national student strike designed to protest the war, militarization on campus, and repression of the Black Panther Party. Fatal shootings of 4 students by the National Guard at Kent State (Ohio), 2 students by police at Jackson State (Mississippi), and six Black men in Augusta (Georgia) escalated national protests. Meanwhile, a wildcat teamster strike paralyzed trucking on the heels of March postal strike, the largest wildcat strike in American history. New York City artists organized a Strike against Racism, Sexism, Repression, and War. A University of Washington mapping project estimates that over a million students went on strike at 883 campuses. George Katsiaficas offers higher estimates in The Imagination of the New Left, including that as many as one half of college students participated in the strike, that 35,000 National Guardsman were activated for domestic duty, that over 2,000 people were arrested, that over 100 people were killed and wounded by state forces, and that 16,995 on-campus incidents of arsons or bombings set a historical record for property destruction.

1936–37 Sit-Down Strikes: Anchored by a successful six-week campaign at General Motors, hundreds of thousands of workers combined work stoppages and occupation of their workplaces in the sit-down strike. These strikes and the production disruption they caused spread throughout the General Motors chain of production and won the United Auto Workers exclusive bargaining rights for GM and eventually the US automotive industry. But the sit-ins didn’t stop with victory at GM in February. Workers in hotels, restaurants, retail, and beyond went on strike, peaking in March “with 170 occupations involving 167,210 workers.” The first four months of 1937 saw 306,264 sit-down strikers and many thousands more supporters and others involved in other strikes, labor activity, and economic mobilizations. But state legislatures began adopting bans on the practice and police intervention and violence ramped up against sit-down strikes. In 1939, the Supreme Court held that workers fired for participating in sit-down strikes have no legal recourse to get their jobs back.

This list ought to be well known to Americans, but it isn’t. The labor militancy that brought us the weekend, mass unions, and a blue-collar middle class is too often forgotten. The Civil Rights Movement overshadowed its militant twin brother, Black uprisings in the 1960s. The tragedies of Kent State and the King assassination loom larger than the massive responses they provoked. And the failure to stop the Iraq war is remembered better than the massive participation in the effort to do so. But memory is a tool to plot our next steps and make sure our current mobilization has a lasting impact.

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